Editorial / Write side up
Sunset of the Empire
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / WRITE SIDE UP 
 
 
 
 
Intellectual fare for the creative mind. No doubt such a distinction is patently frivolous, but the temptation to so describe the prolonged bash being planned for writers by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations at Neemrana near New Delhi is quite overwhelming. Seminars and panel discussions are to form the intellectual staple of the “international festival of Indian literature”. What is Indian can of course be international, as so many Indian festivals all over the world have shown. Literature is a different kettle of fish. There is the problem of language, a recalcitrant medium if there ever was one. India, unfortunately for the cultural bureaucrat and the bureaucratically minded writer and critic, has too many languages and, therefore, too many literatures. To make such a festival “international”, in keeping with the ICCR’s declared aims of cultural ambassadorship, Indian literature needs to be identified with Indian writing in English. No problem about that, of course, apart from the fact that it makes nonsense of the catchy phrase the ICCR has chosen to describe the “festival”.

But such hair splitting is unlikely to bother the organizers, even if it means dropping the hundreds of powerful writers in regional languages out of the range of the word “Indian”. Games of appropriation and gut-wrenching debates over them have become old hat. What is new, as the ICCR takes every opportunity to remind an admiring populace, is that this international festival of Indian literature is the first of its kind. One possible response to that could be: would there were no second. The plan is to bring over and put up writers from all over the world — the list is dazzling — at some of the most exclusive places in and near the capital for almost a week. Since the aim of this vastly expensive exercise remains unclear — unless the seminars double as sparks from heaven — it is possible to spe- culate on what can actually be achieved.

Which, unsurprisingly, is very little. A few reams of who said what, who patted whose back and who snarled at whom —discourse made addictive by “society” columns — is likely to be the net result, to the greater glory of the ICCR. But the main aim might perhaps be that a good time should be had by all. No harm in all this, again. But the basic question would be: what does a government institution have to do with this kind of festival? Government patronage of the arts is not unknown, but that has nothing to do with pouring the resources of a strained exchequer into a union or reunion of successful writers. Ideally, the government should keep as far away from the arts as possible; intervention and appropriation are equally destructive evils.

But the ICCR exists, and has funds to spend. Only it is not expected to spend the funds on a feel-good, week-long party for writers. Hosted by the government’s mouthpiece for “Indian” culture, the seminars and discussions are meant to manufacture an officially welcomed discourse, one that would smooth away the wrinkles and bristles of art’s subversive potential. It is the Indian government’s cultural route to being “at home in the world”. No artist, though, is ever at home.

   

 
 
SUNSET OF THE EMPIRE 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
Autobiography sits uneasily with history. The purely subjective viewpoint is difficult to accept for a historian whose stock-in-trade is objectivity. Autobiography at best serves as a raw material, a part of an archive. This might be one reason why so few historians write autobiographies. There are exceptions,of course.

The names of Edward Gibbon, who in the late 18th century wrote the monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Richard Cobb, who in the Sixties and the Seventies transformed the study of the French Revolution through his studies of popular culture and popular protest, come easily to mind. Both wrote autobiographies which are superb additions to the genre.

More recently, two historians, both in their fifties, have written recollections of their childhood and formative years, and have tried to link this experience to their chosen craft. The recollections are not in the form of books but are essays which have been added as epilogues to their latest books. The historians are C.A. Bayly, one of the foremost historians of modern India and the holder of the Vere Harmsworth professorship of Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge, and David Cannadine, the director of the Institute of Historical Research at London University and the author of many highly acclaimed books on the British aristocracy and the idea of class in Britain.

The childhood of both historians was spent in the afterglow of Empire. Bayly’s father had joined the merchant marine as an officer cadet at the age of 15 in 1936. He was an old liberal and “robustly patriotic”. The family exuded working class or lower middle-class Empire loyalism. The latter feature could not have created any dissonance in “twee and conservative Tunbridge Wells” where Bayly grew up even though Bayly senior advocated the cause of the Liberal Party. Bayly went to an “undistinguished” grammar school in Kent and then to Balliol from where he moved to Cambridge in 1970.

Cannadine was a Midland boy born in 1950. His father was an India hand who had served with the Royal Engineers in India between 1942 to 1945. Cannadine senior described his days in India as the greatest adventure of his life. His son writes that it nearly became the last adventure as he caught malaria and survived only because he was near enough to Calcutta “where he got the best medical treatment then available”. He brought back his memories and a scrapbook that he had compiled. This was David Cannadine’s first view of India: pictures of the Victoria Memorial, the Taj Mahal, the Gateway of India and the Kanchenjunga, all very “strange” and “exotic”. Incessant talk about India and bric-a-brac from India were part of his young life. But the last memory of the royal engineer was bitter. He regretted independence and believed that Indians owed their freedom to the British. He feared that India would go communist and was happy that it did not.

The fathers of both historians were thus proud of Britain’s imperial possessions. Empire or the Raj had not yet become bad words to be uttered sotto voce in politically correct circles. There was a Churchillian flavour to this loyalism which was very much a product of the times and the social context which had formed the attitudes of both persons.

On this family background was overlaid the education of the two historians. Cannadine first read about the British Empire in the second of a three volume work entitled, The Outline of the World Today. This book took the greatness of Britain and the beneficial effects of the British Empire for granted. The hero of the book, not unexpectedly, was Cecil Rhodes. This view of the empire was fortified by the kind of fiction he read: G.A. Henty, Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Ian Fleming and so on. Such books were staple reading of most British schoolboys of Cannadine’s generation. (This was true, I might add, of most Indian schoolboys of a particular class and type of education.)

In school, under an inspired schoolmaster he read the history of the colonies as a Whiggish progress from settlement to responsible government. Independence and Partition in India, in this scheme, were the triumphs of British rule. Former colonies had no histories of their own; their histories were parts of the history of the British Empire. At Cambridge, under Jack Gallagher, Ronald Robinson and Eric Stokes, he still read the history of the Empire from the point of view of the metropolis. Gallagher and Robinson analysed the “official mind of imperialism” in Africa and the Victorians and Stokes studied the impact of utilitarian doctrines on British administration in India.

This was the last hurrah of imperial history in the early Sixties. Already, as Cannadine noticed, the focus was shifting: Gallagher was moving to the study of Indian nationalism; Stokes to agrarian society in 19th century India; and Robinson to “the collaborating elites” of the colonies.

In Oxford, in the late Sixties, Bayly benefited from the impact of these changes. Bayly does not write about his schooldays. But while at Balliol, he felt the impact of the intellectual energies of Keith Thomas and of some other students of Christopher Hill. He came to India and this created a new academic interest. There was also the influence of Gallagher who had by then moved to Oxford. Gallagher gently nudged Bayly, whom he famously described as the best student he had had, towards Indian studies. The final push came when S. Gopal, then reader in Indian history in Oxford, suggested that Bayly should study the local roots of nationalism in Allahabad. This brought Bayly to Allahabad and the realities of life in north India.

These influences are evident in the works of the two historians. Bayly remains a historian who prefers to look at the local workings of Indian society in the 18th and 19th centuries. While in Cannadine’s work, India enters as an illustration of a bigger narrative of either British history or the Empire. Bayly is a historian of the Raj, Cannadine an analyst of the Empire. That contraposition hides similarities. Cannadine in Ornamentalism: How the British saw their Empire sees the Empire as “far too ramshackle a thing ever to display unanimity of action and consistency of purpose”. This brings him perilously close to the view that the British Empire was acquired and functioned in a fit of absentmindedness. Bayly’s work has always drawn attention to the continuities that he finds between pre-British India and British rule. Both views in different ways and with varying degrees of emphasis underplay the deleterious impact of British rule on Indian society and economy.

Somewhere and somehow, there is the residue of loyalism that the two historians imbibed from their fathers. The British Empire is dead but some of the attitudes it engendered subliminally linger on. The autobiography of a historian does shed light on his work. “Study the historian before you study his work” was E.H. Carr’s sage injunction.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Sons on the march

Father figure Their papas (and mamas) have had their day, it is the turn of the sons and heirs of our mai baap political classes to now take their rightful place in the sun. Taking a cue from his cousins, Priyanka and Rahul, Varun Gandhi has decided to take a break from the academic session at the London School of Economics to help out mama Maneka who was reduced to a no show even in her constituency, Pilibhit. Another rising star, Sachin Pilot, the son of the late lamented Rajesh Pilot, drew crowds over a lakh strong at a rally organized to announce his formal entry into politics. But it is the new maharaja of Gwalior, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who has taken to his fledgling political career with uncommon zest. Madhavrao Scindia’s son has put together a group of all his management friends to help him campaign for the Lok Sabha byelections in Guna. That Jyotiraditya will take Guna is but a foregone conclusion, but that’s not where the Scindia scion’s ambitions end — he wants to set a new record for the margin of victory. Interestingly, the present record is held by his party boss, Sonia Gandhi, who won the 13th general elections from Amethi by a margin of over 3,20,000 votes. The scent of imminent victory animating them, Jyotiraditya’s pals are working hard in Guna. They realize that if the new maharaja makes it big on the political scenario, they are on to a really good thing.

Leave it to god

Son of the soil, and an unhappy one at that. The Uttaranchal CM, BS Koshiyari, is upset that no less than Atal Bihari Vajpayee killed the claims of Uttaranchal being the result of the BJP’s procreative efforts. The PM in his campaign in the state stunned the party leadership when he said that Uttaranchal was a “gift of god”. Only a few days back LK Advani had said an entirely different thing about the state’s parentage. Exasperated, Koshiyari threw up his hands and vowed never to work for the party any more since divinity had already intervened. His bottomline: “Ab sarkar bhi bhagwan hi bana dega” (Now god himself will form the government). God better help Vajpayee.

Lend me a ear

God helps those who help themselves. And Laloo Yadav knows that. The great rustic orator made the day for forlorn AICC gen-sec Ghulam Nabi Azad at the Maath constituency in Mathura. A 20 people crowd swelled to thousands when Laloo arrived, having started his campaign for the Congress from the Vishram Ghat temple, where Krishna had apparently rested after having killed the evil king, Kansa. Laloo boomed, “I have come here to perform the puja in the temple of my kuldevta and have pledged to finish the BJP like Krishna finished Kansa.” The Yadav insisted that the BJP was sending him to jail repeatedly because he had arrested LK Advani. That is what it takes to help oneself out of a spot. Are the gods listening?

Is anyone there?

Funtime in the information and broadcasting ministry. The minister, Sushma Swaraj, has been out campaigning, lending her lung power to the much deprived in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Uttaranchal. The minister of state, Ramesh Bais, left for Raipur to attend to constituency work. The secretary meanwhile chose to fly out of the country. The additional secretary proceeded on leave on account of his daughter’s wedding. The two joint secretaries were also holidaying on account of some foreign junkets. That left the ministry at the mercy of some director-level officers and Sushma’s omnipotent PS, Anshu Prakash. Are the biggies coming back at all?

Some friends indeed

What is common between Sonia Gandhi and LK Advani? Not much except for the fact that they both like the West Bengal leftist, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a lot. One catch. Sonia doesn’t like the way Buddha has taken it on himself to try and cleanse the madrasahs, although the drive has invited much appreciation from the home minister. Sonia is reported to have recently asked Pranab Mukherjee why dear Buddha had made such “irresponsible statements” regarding the minority-run educational institutions, which, she felt, were doing a lot of good in places where the state had failed to deliver. Both Pramod Mahajan and Advani, on the contrary, agree with Buddha about madrasahs encouraging fundamentalism. Well! Who seems friendlier then, Sonia or Advani, Buddhadeb?

Time of our life

A historic event to mark this year. At 8.02 pm on February 20, the clocks will read 20:02, 20/02, 2002. The last occasion the time read in such a pattern was years before the era of digital watches — 10.01 am on January 10, 1001. Start marking time!

When wedding bells toll

The time seems to have been fixed. The end of this year. So never mind if Haan...Maine Pyar Kiya makes it to the charts or not, star son Abhishek Bachchan can rest assured. He will have his beau, Karishma Kapoor. Baba and Ma Bachchan and Randhir Kapoor-Babita have apparently decided that the teeny boppers should have a taste of marital bliss quite soon. Lolo, that is Karishma, can’t wait to say goodbye to the silver screen, allegedly to give sis Kareena the playground to herself. The problem is with Abhishek. What role, other than that of a hubbie’s, will he fit into? Should we ask Mulayam Singh Yadav?

Footnote / Roof over heads

House for the BJPwallahs. Apparently, they have no permanent one. Allotted an official bungalow, which was so long in the name of one of its MPs, the men are reportedly about to give themselves a plot of land for the national headquarters. The price for it, they believe, is rather steep, especially given that the other political bigwig, the Congress, paid next to nothing to procure theirs. Without much worry and without as much as half that amount, the Congress had first helped itself to a prime piece of land on Rajendra Prasad Road. When the swanky building was ready, the party surrendered the property to madam to manage affairs of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation from there. The national headquarters shifted to 24, Akbar Road from where anyone who cares for his head would dare not remove the men. Younger men affiliated to the party, that is members of the National Youth Congress and state Congress committees, similarly, work from official bungalows. The communists have an equally inspiring record. Really, it’s time the BJP joined the propertywallahs.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Can’t please them all

Pleasure principle Sir — Poor Colin Powell. On an MTV show, he suggested that young people should use condoms to prevent disease (“Ready for Kashmir, not contraception”, Feb 16). Powell probably thought he was making a perfectly innocuous statement, something that hardly needed reiterating in a country with one of the most advanced sex education programmes. But right-wing groups and fundamentalist Christians were quick to denounce Powell’s statement as “reckless and irresponsible”. Ironically, in the light of the AIDS epidemic, it is their comments which appear irresponsible, if not downright naive.

Yours faithfully,
Lata Sharma, Calcutta

Schools of thought

Sir — Ruby Nishat’s letter, “Firing blank shots” (Feb 12), betrays her ignorance. The remarks of the chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, on the role of private madrasahs in nursing “anti-national feelings” were based on a state minority commission report, a government study on unauthorized madrasahs in the state, and intelligence inputs. Nishat should know that Hindu institutions — vidyalayas, gurukuls, maths and pathsalas — have not been linked to any anti-national activities, and hence it would be unjust for them to face the music for the wrong-doings of a few madrasahs. Also, the argument that since madrasahs were involved in India’s freedom struggle they can’t be involved in anti-national activities today, is spurious.

Yours faithfully,
Kaustav Sinha Ray, Calcutta

Sir — Why is Ruby Nishat offended by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s comments on private madrasahs? The state minority commission’s report on unauthorized madrasahs reflects Bhattacharjee’s views, as do intelligence reports. Also, Nishat’s view that action be taken against Hindu schools betrays the same skewed perspective she accuses Bhattacharjee of.

Yours faithfully,
Terrence Warren, Hyderabad

Sir — Ruby Nishat expresses a desire to have Hindu religious institutions scrutinized. But vidyalayas, gurukuls and pathsalas are more “educational institutions” — as their names, when translated, suggest — than religious institutes. It should be noted that gurukul methodologies are highly appreciated nowadays.

In defence of these institutes, I would also argue that Hinduism is the most tolerant of religions. Tolerance has helped us live peacefully together for many centuries. That we should continue to abide by this virtue is surely the only reason Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee considered regulations for private madrasahs

Yours faithfully,
Mallar Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — Ruby Nishat’s letter is delightfully provoking. I wish the government would adopt her definition of what constitutes “anti-national behaviour”, that is, fundamentalism of all kinds. Of course, by this definition of anti-nationalism, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) could have been hauled up many a time in the past for its “fundamentalist” doctrines. But all that has changed under Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, whose pragmatism, whilst annoying the CPI (M) old guard, has been welcomed by the people of Calcutta. His pragmatism was clearly demonstrated in the apology he offered for his comment that madrasahs were breeding grounds for “anti-national” behaviour. Let us hope this absence of a dogmatic approach allows him to stop “tackling” madrasahs, and focus instead on making Calcutta a safe place for everyone to live in.

Yours faithfully
Rani Dutta, Calcutta

Parting shot

Sir — The article, “On the fast track” (Feb 8), is quite correct in observing that urban Indian teenagers are growing up before their time, both physically and psychologically. The physical growth might have to do with changing nutrition patterns. But is the overall trend desirable? All this has achieved is to make it easier for the hospitality industry and other businesses to promote concepts like discotheques, cellular phones and so on.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

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